Synthetic cannabis: What is and what are the risks

It sounds harmless, but it is not: the so-called synthetic cannabis can be responsible for numerous serious side effects, in addition to not being safe for consumption. Let’s talk about this substance, that is the result of prohibitionism? Come with us!

Spice, K2, synthetic cannabis… this substance is legalized in various parts of the world. Now, during quarantine, especially in Brazil in a prohibitionist setting this synthetic drug is popping up again as the supply of real cannabis grows thin. 

According to reports, the search for the substance has increased – since cannabis reserves, at this time of social isolation, are already much lower, many seek it as an equivalent replacement. But we are warming you: this fake cannabis is not like the cannabis we know.

Knowing what is consumed is one of the first steps in Harm Reduction – and that’s why we brought this post, filled with information about this “synthetic version” of our beloved cannabis. We need to understand, first of all, that this substance is created in the laboratory, and it is not natural like our little plant. Shall we better understand this matter?

After all, what is synthetic cannabis?

“Synthetic cannabis” is a term that refers to a class of substances called cannabinoid receptor agonists, or synthetic cannabinoids. While the term cannabis usually refers to the buds and flowers of the real plant, whose psychoactive effect occurs through THC, these synthetic cannabinoids are named for their action on various receptors in our endocannabinoid system, present throughout our nervous system.

Although they use the name “cannabis” to refer to these substances created in the laboratory, we need to remember that they are very different from the original, magical, cannabis plant. 

Cannabis is a natural herb, which grows in nature and is also cultivated for its medicinal properties and for adult use. Although synthetic cannabinoids are chemically similar to cannabis substances, they are not found in natural cannabis – or its derivatives. The chemical and pharmacological properties of synthetic cannabinoids are largely unknown outside the laboratory.

This substance similar to cannabis, has nothing to do with it. There are no terpenes, the taste is not good, the appearance is dark and not flower-shaped, and smoking it is not pleasant. It is an experience that shouldn’t even be compared to smoking cannabis, that has so many therapeutic potentials and a huge range of action on the human body due to the Entourage effect.

According to UNIFESP psychiatrist and researcher, Dartiu Xavier, – one of the greatest cannabis researchers here in Brazil – the main type of synthetic cannabis that circulates here in the country mimics THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis. As we know, in isolation, THC can cause several adverse reactions (especially if consumed in high doses).

Photo: Wikipedia/DEA/Rillke
Spice, the synthetic cannabis Photo: Wikipedia/DEA/Rillke

What are the reactions and risks?

Synthetic cannabinoids are generally more harmful than the original cannabis. Although our little plant can be the trigger for uncomfortable reactions, such as anxiety, panic, dryness in the mouth and eyes, it is way safer when used correctly. According to Xavier, for every 8 users of synthetic cannabis, one ends up looking for emergency medical services. Bizarre, isn’t it? After all, it is not always that we hear about someone who ended up in the hospital because of cannabis.

The psychiatrist warns that these substances can cause cardiac arrhythmia, severe anxiety and panic attacks, respiratory complications, and there are even reports of deaths related to this use. Another risk is the use before brain maturity – before age 21, any psychotropic substance can cause long-term damage to the organ.

In the United States, in 2012, officials from state public health departments, poison control centers and CDC researchers identified 16 cases of acute kidney injury related to the use of synthetic cannabinoids in six states (Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, New York, Rhode Island and Wyoming).

But why do people use it?

Photo: Tribuna Espanhol
K2, a synthetic cannabis Photo: Tribuna Espanhol

There are many reasons. One of the main ones, however, is prohibitionism.

Synthetic cannabinoids have emerged in the past decade as a legal (or almost legal) alternative to the herb. Most people expect the effects of synthetic cannabinoids to be like cannabis, but they are not.

These synthetic substances were produced and sold in herbal mixtures for smoking as “legal substitutes” for cannabis. The products are packaged and branded to suggest a similarity to the effects of marijuana, but as the materials are mixtures of inert herbs soaked in synthetic cannabinoids, their appearance, taste and smell are different – and the effects are much more aggressive.

Some users are attracted to the fact that synthetic cannabinoid products do not trigger a positive result in anti-doping tests. Active soldiers, professional athletes, people on probation and people undergoing substance abuse treatment are some of the cases. Another group that tends to use synthetic cannabinoids is people in a vulnerable situation, since synthetic cannabinoids have become an affordable substitute for cannabis and other drugs.

Prohibitionism as a risk factor

Substances like synthetic cannabis are created from dynamics of the prohibitionist policy. Because they are new, less studied and are not on official lists of prohibited drugs, this type of product ends up gaining space in the market even legally – but in a much more risky way.

It is evident that the safety of the population is not the main reason for the prohibition or regulation of drugs. If that was the reason, the plant cannabis would be legalized and synthetic cannabis would not.

Many users trust and use the substance precisely because it was made in the laboratory and because it is easily found, in stores or even on the internet. The truth is that its effects and risks are much less studied than those of cannabis – an ancient plant that has been around since the world is a world. This very reduction of cannabis to the “banned drug” is what drives people to find new ways to change their states of consciousness, sometimes at the expense of their own lives.

Therefore, some suggestions:

  • If possible, do not exchange your cannabis for synthetic cannabis. The effect will not be the same, and the risks will be even greater;
  • Always try to find out what you are using and what are the best Harm Reduction strategies. This can be the difference between a smooth trip and a visit to the emergency room;
  • Question: if you can have a natural, original product, why use its version created in the laboratory, which can be so much more harmful to your body?
  • Last but not least: get involved and understand the anti-prohibitionist fight, whose main objective is to give users autonomy, so that they can make conscious choices and have access to quality cannabis.

Um novo estudo, o Global Drug Survey 2015, detectou pela primeira vez que a versão sintética da maconha vem sendo usada no Brasil. No país, o levantamento é …

You can watch an amazing video on the subject

With the special participation of young Alice, in 2015!

Take good care of yourself: try to know what you consume and make the least risky decisions. After all, we want you here, following all of this closely and together with us in this fight for fairer regulation! Did you already know synthetic cannabis? Tell us here!

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